Originally published on NBC Think Sept. 5, 2019, 6:14 PM
As Hurricane Dorian spun erratically past Puerto Rico’s northeast corner last week, most of the island breathed a deep sense of relief. The storm did batter St. Thomas, a U.S. Virgin Island, and the offshore island-municipalities of Culebra and Vieques, and has wreaked havoc on the Bahamas, where it made landfall as a devastating Category 5 storm. Now it is on the East Coast, as residents in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia remain on high alert
Puerto Ricans, not completely recovered from 2017’s Hurricane María, got a desperately needed reprieve. Yet in the days leading up to and immediately after Dorian’s passing, several troubling issues have emerged, casting a dark shadow on the island territory’s immediate and long-term future. Because while this storm has mostly passed, Puerto Rico’s future — and weather — still looks turbulent.
First there was the resumption of President Donald Trump’s insulting and inaccurate propagandizing about Puerto Rico, which, while easily dismissible, harms Puerto Rico and its citizens in real and measurable ways. Ever since his witless and degrading paper-towel tossing episode in San Juan in the days after Hurricane María in 2017, Trump has consistently characterized Puerto Rico as a poor, un-American drain on U.S. resources.
“Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico,” he tweeted last Tuesday. “Will It never end?” It was a remark clearly designed to appeal to a base that finds Puerto Rico an undeserving headache for taxpayers. No such opprobrium has been expressed toward Florida, currently still in the path of the storm, or Texas, the victim of Hurricane Irma in 2017. While falling short of using the profane language he used to describe Haiti, he has all but called Puerto Rico a “s—hole.”
On Tuesday the president also falsely insisted — again — that the island has received $92 billion in recovery funds, when the truth is about $49 billion has been allocated by Congress, and only $20 billion has been disbursed, with only $1.5 billion of that going to reconstruction. Rather than instructing the government to attend to the shortfall of funds received by Puerto Rico, Trump continues to build a case that funds should be curtailed for an island of 3.4 million U.S. citizens whose electrical and transportation infrastructure is in dire need of repair, and where up to 30,000 household are still using FEMA-distributed blue tarps for damaged or destroyed roofs.
And now it is becoming increasingly clear that Puerto Rico will be one of the U.S. territories hit hardest by the Pentagon’s plan to halt some construction plans in order to build Trump’s border wall. All in all, over $400 million in funding for 10 construction projects on the island, including a power substation and a National Guard readiness center, is now frozen.
On the other hand, Puerto Rico’s government has fallen far short in serving and protecting the island’s residents. The embarrassing corruption and public relations scandal that resulted in the resignation of Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in early August has only given credence to Trump’s relentless insistence that “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth.” The ugly affair, which included revelations of a sexist and homophobic social media chat between government officials, has already resulted in the Trump administration restricting billions of dollars of aid to the island.
Rossello’s departure left Puerto Rico to be governed by his attorney general, Wanda Vásquez, who has little governing experience, has been questioned about her willingness to the investigate Rosselló administration’s corruption and has shaky political backing from her own pro-statehood New Progressive Party. On the night before Dorian’s arrival, perhaps rushing to publish because of the storm, Vásquez’s government released a Joint Operational Catastrophic Incident Plan of Puerto Rico, which has already been criticized as inadequate.
Because while Dorian has moved on from Puerto Rico, the hurricane season isn’t over there. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Prediction Center announced in early August that because a recent El Niño cycle had ended, it’s likely this hurricane season will be above-normal in the Atlantic region. NOAA predicts 10 to 17 named storms, five to nine hurricanes, and two to four major hurricanes this year.
Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día, asserted that “the new plan doesn’t say which roads are vulnerable, what personnel would be counted on to attend to a vulnerable electrical system.” A New York Times report says that a new emergency preparation system designed to warn of the breaching of the problematic Guajataca Dam in western Puerto Rico was not operational because the local government had not granted permits to install it. The same report revealed that the island’s 911 system, which was one of the causes cited for the approximately 3,000 deaths resulting from Hurricane María, has not been upgraded because the local government has not purchased the necessary technology.
It’s easy to blame the Puerto Rico government for failing to upgrade, but it should be pointed out that austerity provisions imposed by the Fiscal Oversight and Management Board created by 2016’s PROMESA Act, intended to restructure the island’s $72 billion debt, has limited available funds. Still, Rosselló’s government had no problem spending millions in contracts for public relations firms that managed damage control in the years following the hurricane, as well as harass political opponents online.
Vásquez insisted in a pre-hurricane news conference that “the island was ready and better prepared” to respond to Dorian. The fact that this quote is remarkably similar to Trump’s apparently supportive comment to Fox News about Florida last week — “they are going to be really ready, and Puerto Rico was totally ready” — might not be surprising. Unlike San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who called Trump a racist after his last tweet attack, Vásquez is — some might say inexplicably — a Trump supporter.
All of which is to say that Puerto Ricans have once again been largely abandoned by both the U.S. government and its own government. They’ve been forced to resort to efforts organized by local municipalities, communities and neighborhoods to ensure their survival in the face of a string of increasingly powerful hurricanes and tropical storms. Communities are organizing informal assemblies to work through problems from storm preparation to dealing with health care crises and school closings.
But Puerto Ricans need more than just the ability to stock up on bottled water and essential supplies before a storm. They need to create a new political leadership that can force Washington to recognize that their dignity won’t be trampled on by ineffectual policies and politicians who seem to care little about their lives and liberty. They need to show that with the 2020 election coming up, everyone in America should be concerned about their fate.
They need to do this not only for their long-term future, but because, despite Dorian’s passing, there’s still two months of hurricane season left.